Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, said the federal response to the incident highlighted the need for stronger security measures in the region amid the Russia–Ukraine war.
They also said it may be a sign that more Russians will flee the country to escape conscription. In fact, the incident occurred a week after the White House said America would welcome any Russian “seeking refuge.”
The men sailed from a coastal city in northeastern Russia and arrived at a beach near Gambell on the northwest side of St. Lawrence Island.
The men were first met by local community leaders whom Sullivan reportedly praised for handling the situation until federal border officials arrived by plane from 750 miles away.
St. Lawrence Island is located in the Bering Sea, west of mainland Alaska. Gambell, near the beach where the men landed, is around 50 miles from Russia’s far east Chukchi Peninsula.
On Thursday, Murkowski said she and Sullivan were engaged with federal officials and local residents to determine who the men are. She also indicated a potential weak spot in national security, noting that a federal presence in the Bering Strait region was “lacking.”
“Only local officials and state law enforcement had the capability to immediately respond to the asylum seekers, while Customs and Border Protection had to dispatch a Coast Guard aircraft from over 750 miles away to get on scene,” Murkowski said in a joint statement.
“This situation underscores the need for a stronger security posture in America’s Arctic, which I have championed throughout my time in the Senate.”
Senators Urge Feds to Prepare for More Russian Asylum Seekers
The incident may be a sign that more Russians could follow suit in order to escape fighting in “Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” according to Sullivan.
Sullivan said he phoned Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Tuesday when St. Lawrence Island locals first contacted him about the situation.
“I continue to be in regular communication with DHS Secretary Mayorkas and officials at Customs and Border Protection and have encouraged them to have a plan ready with the Coast Guard in the event that more Russians flee to Bering Strait communities in Alaska,” Sullivan said.
“This incident makes two things clear: First, the Russian people don’t want to fight Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” Sullivan said.
The second issue made clear by the incident, Sullivan said, is that Alaska’s proximity to Russia in the Bering Straits region means his state has a “vital role to play securing America’s national security.”
“This is why Senator Murkowski and I have been pressing officials in Washington D.C. so hard on the need to prioritize capabilities in the Arctic—including infrastructure, Coast Guard assets, ports, and strategic defense assets,” he said.
Sullivan said CBP were processing the men to determine their admissibility to enter the United States as asylum seekers. Under U.S. law, in order for a foreign national to seek asylum stateside, an individual must first come to the U.S. border and make their case.
According to DHS, the men were flown to Anchorage and “processed in accordance with applicable U.S. immigration laws under the Immigration and Nationality Act,” Alaskan News Source reported.
Immigration attorney Margaret Stock, who noted that she doesn’t know the specifics of their case, said the men were legally allowed to claim asylum.
“They’re following the law. If you want to apply for asylum you have to show up in America. You either have to walk up to the border and claim asylum or you have to somehow get into America. We don’t allow people to file for asylum in foreign countries,” she said in an interview with Alaska Beacon.
Stock said the men would have strong cases for asylum if they were seeking to avoid joining an army that is committing war crimes.
Illegal immigration is uncommon in Alaska whereas along the southern U.S. border it happens in unprecedented numbers. Southern leaders point to the Biden administration’s soft border policies for the skyrocketing numbers of illegal immigrants approaching the southern border to claim asylum.